I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red. I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence, there were blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city. And my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety, and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
And that is how Edvard Munch describes what he felt while drawing the infamous painting, The Scream (1893). He saw the sky turn blood red, and he felt anxious. If you can see the artwork, the first thing that comes to your mind is ‘anxious’. The art flaunts out, speaks out anxiety; everything about that piece of art communicates some fear.
Edvard Munch describes this about Oslo, in Norway. There was a lunatic asylum near that location which admitted his sister for her disorder. Many interpretations tell that it was this asylum that he referred when he said: “scream passing through nature”. He describes how he felt anxious when he was looking at the blood-red sky. Many thought the blood-red sky was just a metaphor.
Historians explain that a nearby volcanic eruption causes a dramatic red sky in Oslo for a few days. The red sky he saw might be in one of those days. And it is only natural to feel anxious after looking at something unnatural. But if you look closely at the figure that is in the painting. It is screaming, now that figure is metaphorical. It is in-human and looks something close to what we call a ghost.
This figure might represent nature in a personal form. The personification of his feelings when he passed that area made this painting necessary. It is a crucial artwork in history because it is prominent for the movement: ‘impressionism’. People consider Edvard Munch as an expressionist artist, but this specific work is impressionistic.
Impressionism was an art movement in the 19th century. The impressionist artists chose to draw or make a piece of art not by merely depicting something as it is. They would instead create an impression that had been in their minds while looking at the specific inspiration. You can see how it fits the profile of The Scream!
Many historians also claim that it was not just a lunatic asylum that felt like a scream of nature, but there was also a slaughterhouse nearby.
Later in life, Edvard Munch stopped consuming meat and felt it was cannibalism. He, however, continued to eat fish, but he was outspoken about turning vegetarian. ‘Vegetarian cult’ he called it. Historians related his thoughts on vegetarianism from his early ‘Scream’ days and said the ‘scream of nature’ might also refer to the screams of animals from the slaughterhouse.
It does make sense to think of it as the screams of animals because, in his later life, Munch describes eating animals is cannibalism and they are our cousins, brothers, sisters and aunts. He is against the idea of eating closer relatives such as animals, and he supports eating our distant relatives who share different anatomy to us, the plants!
Both interpretations have something in common, the scream—screams of lunatic patients and animals from butchery. Both are innocent; they have committed no crime to suffer such punishment. It is humans that mistreat people with disorders and animals for food. The setting seemed odd, slaughterhouse one side and the lunatic asylum on the other, and the blood-red sky. It was a scream of nature; man, animal, sky, plant and everything around screamed at that moment in his mind.
If he drew this as ordinary landscape painting depicting it as it is with regular people on the bridge, asylum and slaughterhouse on either side, would it have created such an impact? Would you feel anxious when you look at it? Would you understand the scream of nature? You would need some description to figure out the motive behind the painting if it was an ordinary landscape.
It is because of the impressionistic choice he made to personify the scream, to draw the sky wavy in a surreal way, and that makes us feel anxious to look at it. It is as if it was his anxiety that he put into the work, and it transmits to everyone who looks at it. Such is the beauty of Impressionist and Expressionist arts. It is not merely capturing the movement as it is, but it is capturing the feelings that come with the moment and scenery that makes a painting and artistic painting!